Which is more important - a portrait or a letter?

September 26 2013

Image of Which is more important - a portrait or a letter?

Picture: ArtFund

What tells you more about a historical figure - their portrait or their letters? Even as an art lover and a purveyor of portraits, I would have to concede the latter, in most cases. A possible exception can be made when we're dealing with exceptional artists who have built strong relationships with their sitters. The first example that comes to mind is Allan Ramsay and David Hume. 

Anyway, the point of this post is to alert you to the impending loss to the UK of the archive of General James Wolfe, conqueror of Quebec. On 1st August this year, the UK government put a temporary export ban on the most important collection of documents relating to Wolfe - 232 letters from Wolfe to his parents, charting his whole career. The archive had been sold to a Canadian buyer for £900,000. 

With just four days to go, it seems that no UK institution is going to step forward and try to prevent the sale. The National Army Museum is the logical candidate for a buyer, for some years ago they successfully stopped the export of the above portrait of General Wolfe by J S Schaak, and bought it for £308,750. But I've learnt that the NAM has decided not to even try and buy the archive. One of the reasons is that much of it has 'already been reproduced'. 

This is a curious state of affairs. As the (so far anonymous) Expert Adviser when an export licence was being considered noted, the papers have indeed been reproduced, but only in a heavily edited way (to suppress a great deal of information) and with many errors. Clearly, the papers are of central importance to UK military history, and a strong case can be made for them staying in the country. Saying we don't need the physical letters because they've been transcribed is a bit like saying we don't need a painting because it has been photographed.

I'm doubly interested in the NAM's decision because when the Schaak portrait of Wolfe, above, came up before the government's export licensing panel I had the job of representing the overseas buyer. I argued that the portrait was, while an interesting object, not a pre-eminent one, mainly because it wasn't done from life, and was one of a number of versions. So I'm puzzled as to why the NAM should have wanted to acquire a posthumous portrait of Wolfe which tells us little of the man, but not his more important archive. Art lovers may like the precedent that a portrait of a historical figure is more valued, and easir to fundraise for, than their archive. But historians certainly won't.

Update - some behind the scenes agitating by me (I'm a member of the government's Historical Manuscripts body), has helped lead to the below letter in today's Times. Our best hope at the moment is in persuading the NAM to change their mind. Three days to go...

Update II - a (Canadian) reader writes:

On the bright side, if General Wolfe’s archive does leave the country it will go to Canada where he is a great hero and much better known than I suspect he is in his homeland! Every Canadian student learns about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham as an important moment of our country’s history. They would find a good home there, I think (provided they are still available to researchers, of course).

True. But also, sadly, a reflection of the shockingly bad provision for history teaching in UK schools.

Update III - they're going to Canada. I tried, but alas...

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